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Reality on the High Seas
  • April 18, 2012 : 09:04
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The series remains Animal Planet’s second-most-popular show, after River Monsters. “What makes this gripping is that nobody can script this ending,” Foley says. “I am still sometimes amazed we got this on the air, and delighted. But it’s kind of astonishing.” Executive producer Liz Bronstein’s Lizard Trading Company produces the series for Animal Planet, hiring independent contractors to film on the ships. In the Faroe Islands, there were three camera operators, one producer, one associate producer and one sound technician on the Steve Irwin, and two camera operators/producers on the Brigitte Bardot.

Producers have no control over anything that happens on the ship, including who comes aboard. They are also subject to every Sea Shepherd decision; they’re along for the ride, which has included being pelted with bolts and blasted by water cannons from a Japanese whaling vessel and filming as a Japanese ship tore the front off the tiny Sea Shepherd vessel Ady Gil, causing it to sink. During the second season, as Watson navigated the non-ice-class ship through icebergs, Whale Wars broke the fourth wall to show its then director of photography and a crew member watching the vessel’s steel flex inward as ice scraped by. “This is where my commitment ends. I am not drowning,” the cameraman said, setting down his equipment.

A lot has changed since then. “I never find Sea Shepherd to be reckless,” Whale Wars producer Philippe Denham says, though the show certainly makes it seem that way. Once, when he was outside with a satellite phone, the boat listed and he slid toward its edge. “That was probably the most dangerous thing that ever happened, just by making a phone call back to the office,” he says. Bronstein praises Denham for helping repair the antagonistic relationship filmmakers had with the crew during seasons one and two. They eat and live with their subjects, but Denham has a clear line: “Never make it about yourself. It’s never about us. If you’re sitting around a poker table, let them tell the joke.”

Empathy is critical with his subjects. “If you’re here to respect what they do, then you’re good to go, then they respect you. If they feel you’re trying to sabotage what they do and make them look stupid, then they’ll just clam up, and you’re the enemy,” he says.

Life aboard the ship is not for everyone: not showering for weeks, flushing with a pail full of water, eating vegan food but no fresh produce. Second-season crews created the ETS, or egg transportation system, by which eggs hidden in the producers’ cabin were transferred to be microwaved in their production suite, two small adjoining cabins that serve as an off-limits base and living quarters for most of the TV crew. There, associate producer Sess Hyman, who is also Denham’s wife, sits at a computer monitor, watching and copying footage. Loggers will later transcribe everything that is said on the tapes, but Hyman’s notations form the basis of the day’s story notes, which Denham creates. The footage is duplicated and periodically shipped back to the United States on special hard drives. The process isn’t easy: Tapes were once confiscated by Australian authorities investigating confrontations; it took five months to get them back. During the second season, one of two FedEx boxes of masters arrived late, having clearly been opened: The tapes were dirty, and a bubble-wrapped marijuana pipe had been tucked among the footage, a subtle signal that their work was vulnerable and not appreciated.

Separating Whale Wars from Sea Shepherd is another challenge for the producers and the network, so executive producer Bronstein met with Faroese officials before production began. “Even though you technically don’t need a permit to film in the Faroes, it still seemed like the right thing to do,” she says. “I also didn’t want to appear secretive, and I didn’t want it to appear that we were a part of Sea Shepherd, because we’re not; we’re documentarians. I said there might be—there will be—a time where if Sea Shepherd gets in the way of the grind, we’ll be on the boat. They said, ‘Well, then you’re complicit and you’ll go to jail.’”

The show and Sea Shepherd are one and the same to the Faroese government. “We were not convinced by [Bronstein’s] arguments that the intention was to make a ‘documentary’ rather than another episode in a reality show–entertainment product, which is ultimately designed to maximize profit for a commercial TV network, while at the same time serving to perpetuate and advertise the spurious activities of the organization it has as its subject matter,” Kate Sanderson wrote to Playboy in an e-mail message. Sanderson, an Australian who moved to the Faroes in 1985 and now directs a division of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and represents the nation in international organizations, is a passionate defender of the Faroese way of life, which she frames as an issue of self-reliance: It’s “very important for a small island nation surrounded by the sea to be as self-sufficient in food as possible, when so much else has to be imported.” That includes eating sheep, which are locally farmed, and catching seabirds, whales and fish. Despite not welcoming Whale Wars, Sanderson wrote, “it was difficult to do anything but accept that she was genuine in her assurances that they were concerned to ‘tell the Faroese side of the story,’ as she put it. They were, after all, already here and were intent on filming, with or without our cooperation or participation.” Bronstein calls Sanderson “very formidable” but ultimately “quite helpful” and says she found the Faroese to be smart, “really good people, really kind, really honest—absolutely mystified as to how they suddenly became the center of all this attention.”

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read more: entertainment, tv, issue april 2012

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